The Big Ten’s bold conversion to a nine-game conference schedule launches this fall, with each school drawing six intra-division outings and three crossovers (East vs. West).
Will this grand experiment become an unqualified success in Year 1? For that to occur, two things need to happen:
1) The Big Ten champion ultimately reaches the four-team College Football Playoff.
2) The West division stays competitive with the East’s more heralded squads during crossover action. (Note: The East has two home games during crossover play this season, compared to the West’s one home tilt.)
The Big Ten’s extended journey into the unknown has at least two known components: The extra conference games will be more attractive to ticket-buying fans and check-writing TV networks, thanks to no more lame encounters with FCS programs.
Plus, it gives the Land Of 10 an excuse to rank each school’s crossover slate — listing the schedules from most difficult to least difficult, in descending order:
GROUP I: THE CHEESE STANDS ALONE
Sept. 24 — at Michigan State
Oct. 1 — at Michigan
Oct. 15 — vs. Ohio State
Seriously, what did Wisconsin officials do to deserve such an ominous crossover?
It’s one thing to be the only West team to face the conference’s Big Three in a single campaign, but it’s another to have back-to-back trips to Michigan State and Michigan to open Big Ten play, and then follow that up with a pressure-packed home clash against Ohio State after a bye week.
Any team in the country — perhaps even big, bad Alabama with their four national titles since 2009 — would struggle during that grind.
The Badgers’ pain goes deeper than the crossover drudgery: After the Ohio State matchup, Wisconsin subsequently draws Iowa (road), Northwestern (home) and Nebraska (road) over three consecutive Saturdays.
It’s a crazy schedule; and it only makes sense to, uh, reward Wisconsin with this countdown’s highest honor.
GROUP II: ROUGH TERRAIN
Oct. 15 — at Michigan State
Oct. 22 — vs. Indiana
Oct. 29 — at Ohio State
Oct. 15 — at Rutgers
Oct. 22 — at Michigan
Nov. 5 — vs. Michigan State
Sept. 24 — at Rutgers
Nov. 5 — at Penn State
Nov. 12 — vs. Michigan
Oct. 15 — at Wisconsin
Oct. 29 — vs. Northwestern
Nov. 5 — vs. Nebraska
Northwestern and Illinois have multiple meetings with the East’s Big Three (Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State); and the Wildcats get preferential treatment among the group for obvious reasons, because their two meetings with MSU and OSU are on the road.
Regarding Iowa, taking on Rutgers (road), Penn State (road) and Michigan (home) doesn’t seem overly taxing at first blush. However, I have the Hawkeyes sailing through the September and October portion of the schedule, before falling to Penn State on the first November Saturday in the potential upset of the year.
And should the Hawkeyes survive the Happy Valley test, we could be looking at the Big Ten’s first top-five showdown of the season: Michigan at Iowa on Nov. 12.
Ohio State rounds out Group 2 with a respectable run of West foes, all of which have the potential to claim the division crown, or in the case of Wisconsin, rise up for one night of national glory.
GROUP III: THE ‘EYES’ HAVE IT
Oct. 15 — at Indiana
Nov. 5 — at Ohio State
Nov. 19 — vs. Maryland
Oct. 1 — vs. Wisconsin
Oct. 22 — vs. Illinois
Nov. 12 — at Iowa
Sept. 24 — vs. Iowa
Oct. 15 — vs. Illinois
Oct. 22 — at Minnesota
Oct. 1 — vs. Minnesota
Oct. 29 — at Purdue
Nov. 5 — vs. Iowa
This quartet has a common thread: Two winnable outings and one red-letter matchup against my preseason favorites for the Big Ten championship (Ohio State and Iowa).
GROUP IV: COMPARABLE MEDIOCRITY
Oct. 15 — vs. Nebraska
Oct. 22 — at Northwestern
Nov. 26 — vs. Purdue
Sept. 24 — vs. Wisconsin
Oct. 15 — vs. Northwestern
Nov. 5 — at Illinois
Oct. 1 — vs. Purdue
Oct. 15 — vs. Minnesota
Nov. 19 — at Nebraska
Oct. 1 — at Penn State
Oct. 15 — at Maryland
Oct. 22 — vs. Rutgers
Oct. 1 — at Maryland
Oct. 29 — vs. Penn State
Nov. 26 — at Indiana
It’s difficult to label this group as “bottom feeders” or pure “cellar dwellers,” but they do all get a bit of a break with scheduling, though it’s not all easy.
Indiana has to deal with Nebraska (home) and Northwestern (road) on back-to-back weekends.
Michigan State should be on upset alert when Northwestern invades East Lansing in mid-October.
Plus, Maryland and Minnesota will undoubtedly be heavy underdogs when hitting the road against Nebraska and Penn State, respectively.
On the flip side, Purdue definitely has the easiest opponents log of the crossover crowd (Maryland, Penn State, Indiana). Of course, that statement won’t have much gravitas if the Boilermakers end up as the Big Ten’s worst team in 2016.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.